SpaceX has for the first time flown a fourth batch of Starlink low-orbiting internet communications satellites within the span of a single month, having launched a previously-used Falcon 9 booster from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canavderal Space Force Station, Fla., at 4:28 a.m. EDT Wednesday.
Weather for this morning’s launch was exceptionally favorable, with the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base having declared conditions to be 90-percent acceptable, with a slight deterioration to 80 percent in the event of a scrub to Thursday.
“High pressure has built back across the Space Coast, replacing cool, dry air with warmer, moister air,” it was noted on Tuesday afternoon. “The area of low pressure that affected our weather this past weekend is now moving up the east coast, approaching the Outer Banks of North Carolina.”
All told, this was predicted to create wind speeds of less than 10 mph (16 km/h) and only scattered low-level clouds, with the Cumulus Cloud Rule identified as the primary violating factor standing in the way of an on-time launch.
Flying for the ninth time in 2021, SpaceX has conducted its quickfire salvo of launches across the first quarter of the year using only five Falcon 9 cores.
Despite one lost booster in February and more than a month of delays suffered by the life-leading B1049 before its most recent flight, those nine missions have now deposited a grand total of 430 Starlinks into low orbit, plus Turkey’s powerful Türksat-5A geostationary communications satellite and January’s Transporter-1, which saw the largest single number of primary payloads—143—ever lifted by a U.S. vehicle.
And nine flights in the first 12 weeks of the year positions SpaceX favorably against a record-setting 2020. This time last spring, the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch provider had logged just six flights, yet went on to complete a personal-best-beating 26 missions by year’s end.
Despite still being in its youth, 2021 has already seen the first Falcon 9 to fly nine times and the shortest interval between two launches by the same reusable orbital-class booster. And with that latter achievement, we come to B1060, which this morning became the first Falcon 9 booster to launch three times in three consecutive calendar months.
She flew SpaceX’s first mission of the year on 7 January with Türksat 5A, then was turned around in only 27 days to fly a Starlink payload uphill on 4 February, in what SpaceX touted as “rapid reusability”. This neatly eclipsed the Falcon 9’s previous launch-to-launch turnaround record of only 38 days, set a few weeks earlier.
On the back of her hat-trick of 2021 missions, B1060 also flew three times last year. First launched last 30 June, she provided the muscle to boost the Space Force’s third Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellite towards Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), about 12,550 miles (20,200 km) above the planet.
Nine weeks later, on 3 September, she launched again—helping to cement a record for the shortest interval between two Falcon 9 missions from the Space Coast—and went on to fly a third mission on 24 October, both of which were laden with 60-strong batches of Starlinks. On this third flight, she marked the 100th successful launch of a Falcon-class booster.
In readiness for this morning’s sixth launch, the ASDS “Of Course I Still Love You” was drawn out to sea on Sunday, bound for a position about 380 miles (615 km) offshore. And B1060 itself, paired with a sparkling-new second stage and a previously-flown payload fairing—one half of which was a veteran of last November’s Sentinel-6A launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.—was trundled out to SLC-40 on Tuesday for Wednesday’s opening launch attempt.
Standing 230 feet (70 meters) tall, it was readily apparent from the scorched and blackened bottom-half of the booster which “end” had seen the edge of space on the most occasions.
Liftoff at 8:28 a.m. EDT Wednesday was flawless, as the nine Merlin 1D+ engines of B1060 powered the stack smoothly uphill with a combined thrust of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg). Two and a half minutes into flight, as planned, the core separated and began its descent towards the ocean, guided with pinpoint precision by Entry and Landing Burns, hypersonic grid-fins and a set of extendable landing legs. Touchdown, when it came, was perfect, marking the eighth drone ship landing of 2021, out of nine tries.
It was the second occasion that SpaceX has successfully flown four missions in a single calendar month, but only the first time that four Starlink missions have been conducted in a single calendar month. As a result, in the last three weeks, a total of 240 of these small satellites have been ferried uphill, part of SpaceX’s ongoing campaign to position thousands of rapidly-demisable Starlinks in low orbit by the mid-2020s.
Today’s launch comes only days after SpaceX and NASA inked a joint agreement to formalize a sharing of information between the two organizations to maintain and improve space safety. The focus of the agreement, announced on 18 March, is on conjunction avoidance and launch collision avoidance between NASA spacecraft and the steadily growing constellation of Starlinks, more than 400 of which have been launched this year alone and over 1,300 since May 2019.
“Society depends on space-based capabilities for global communications, navigation, weather forecasting and much more,” said Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk. “With commercial companies launching more and more satellites, it’s critical we increase communications, exchange data and establish best practices to ensure we all maintain a safe space environment.”
Under the terms of last week’s agreement, SpaceX will ensure that its Starlinks—whose presence in the night sky has already drawn the ire of astronomers across the globe—can autonomously or manually maneuver themselves to ensure the missions of NASA scientific satellites can operate uninterrupted from a collision-avoidance perspective.
“Unless otherwise informed by SpaceX, NASA has agreed to not maneuver its assets in the event of a potential conjunction to ensure the parties do not inadvertently maneuver into one another,” the space agency noted.
Following this morning’s first-stage boost by B1060, the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the second stage then picked up the baton, executing a six-minute burn, a long coast and a final brief restart, to deliver the Starlink payload into low-Earth orbit. With today’s success, a total of 430 of these flat-packed internet communications satellites have entered space since January and, all told, since the first dedicated flight back in May 2019, no fewer than 1,383 Starlinks have been put in orbit by 24 Falcon 9 missions.